Moses and the Exodus

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Moses was chosen by God to lead the Hebrews out of Egypt and into the promised land. This epic journey was known as the Exodus and was dominated by the heroic figure of Moses. These are the earliest chapters in perhaps the greatest story ever told. The Exodus is the foundation of the Jewish faith. In fact the birth of the three great monotheistic religions occurred at this time as Jews, Christians and Islamics (over half of the world's population) all see Moses as the founding father and patriarch of monotheism - the belief in only one God. Up to that time polytheism - the belief in many Gods - was all that was practiced. The epic journey began in Egypt and is recorded in the Old Testament. But first we look at why the Hebrews ended up in Egypt.

The Israelites
About 2000BC Abraham was summoned by God who asked him to leave the deserts of Mesopotamia and head towards the land of Canaan. Here he was to convert the indigenous population to monotheism. So he left his home city of Ur in Mesopotamia with his tribe and flocks making his way eventually to Canaan. Canaan at this stage extended from Gaza northward to Tripolis (Tarabulus). It was populated with Canaanites who lived in villages and small cities such as Hazor, Megiddo and Jericho where they practiced polytheism and worshiped a multitude of Gods.

God had made a covenant with Abraham. Genesis 15:18 'In the same day the LORD made a covenant with Abram, saying, Unto thy seed have I given this land, from the river of Egypt unto the great river, the river Euphrates:' So through this special relationship they would receive a land of their own, the promised land, and kings would descend from him. In return they must devote themselves to one God, whom the Hebrews called Yahweh. This request must have been very puzzling to Abraham. Why was this to happen, and how was this to happen. However, when Abraham and his people arrived in Canaan they set about introducing monotheism to the Canaanites.

Canaan at this time was prone to unpredictable crop failure and famine. It had one major disadvantage in that it didn't have a life-giving river system like the Nile in Egypt or the Euphrates and Tigres in Mesopotamia. So when it was struck by a severe famine around the 17th century BC, Abraham's grandson Jacob was forced to take his twelve sons to find food in Egypt. Jacob was also called Israel. As the descendants of Jacob founded the 12 tribes of the Hebrews, the tribes became known as the Children of Israel or the Israelites.

Here they lived in relative peace and prosperity until a change in rulership. The new Egyptian ruler was concerned about their increasing numbers and decided to enslave them and they were pressed into forced labour. Moses

However, God's promise to Abraham that they would receive a land of their own - the promised land - which would be theirs forever was about to be fulfilled when the 12 tribes of Israel, the descendants of Jacob's sons were led out of Egypt by the prophet Moses, back to the Land of Israel as promised to their forefathers.

Moses was born into the Levites, one of the twelve tribes of Israel. At that time all male children born to Hebrew slaves were to be drowned in the Nile in accordance with the Egyptian pharaohs ruling. Even though they were enslaved, the Pharaoh was becoming more concerned about their increasing numbers and therefore passed this law.

His mother tried to hide him but eventually had to set him adrift in the Nile, rather than deliver him to be killed. He was found, adopted and reared by one of the pharaoh's daughters.

It appears that Moses was a great leader of people. His upbringing and education in the court of pharaoh served him well. He was a student in the royal nursery. He was educated in the modern day equivalent of Oxford and became the chief scribe of the Hebrews. Acts 7:22 'Moses was educated in all the wisdom of the Egyptians and was powerful in speech and action.' After 40 years of learning in the palace of the Pharaoh, Moses witnessed an incident in which an Egyptian was beating a Hebrew slave. Moses killed the Egyptian and fearing revenge by the Pharaoh he fled to the Sinai peninsula where he stayed for another 40 years. It was at this stage God appeared to Moses and expressed his wishes.

So as God's chosen prophet, his first duty was to return to Egypt and ask the Pharaoh to free the Hebrews. The time had come to flee this harsh oppression in a foreign land (Why was he not arrested by the Pharaoh for the killing 40 years earlier? Was it because of the lapse of time? Was it the same Pharaoh?). But the Pharaoh repeatedly refused to let them leave. But Moses didn't flinch from his task of leading the people of Israel out of slavery in Egypt. Moses had all the qualities of a great leader and would rise to this challenge of the exodus and ensure the Hebrews survived in the wilderness and reach their dream of the promised land.

So Moses met every refusal by sending a plague upon Egypt. And in the end the Pharaoh relented after the devastation wrought by the ten plagues and freed the Hebrews ('And the lord then let them out of Egypt in a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night' - pillar of cloud was perhaps the Santorini eruption, but what was the pillar of fire?).

The Ten Plagues
Gods plan behind the Ten Plagues was to show his power to the Egyptians and the Israelites. However, if they did occur, some scholars think they could be explained by natural phenomena. The ninth plague (darkness) was perhaps the aftermath of a 16th century BC volcanic eruption on the Greek island of Santorini. Known as the Minoan eruption, this was one of the biggest blasts in recorded history and would have dwarfed the well-documented Krakatoa eruption in 1883. There is evidence that it caused climate change in parts of the Northern Hemisphere, caused crop failure as far away as China, contributed to the collapse of the Minoan civilization and the most recent evidence suggests that it could be linked to the ninth biblical plague mentioned in Exodus.

Dr. Daniel Stanley, an oceanographer at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington examined drilled cores from the delta in Egypt and was able to link volcanic glass grains found in the cores directly to the Santorini volcano. It's entirely possible the eruption would have darkened the skies over Egypt. Ash falls would have happened, and we would expect it to be recorded. In fact there is an Egyptian record of the effects of the blast on a stone inscription in the Temple of Karnak in Luxor believed to be dated to 1538BC which seems to coincide with the eruption.

And of course in Exodus we also see records of this event. It's interesting to compare the biblical ring of some news media quotes, after the eruption of Mount St. Helens in Washington state, USA, in May 1980 when the skies were blackened by airborne ash to excerpts from the Exodus.

US media: 'And then it began to rain with a fine hail'. Exodus 9:23: And the Lord sent thunder and hail
US media: 'Residents awoke to a world coated in snowlike powder'. Exodus 9:9: And it shall become fine dust over all the land
US media: 'After the eruption there was a surge of tail frogs'. Exodus 8:6: And the frogs came up and covered the land of Egypt
US media: 'Cattle and horses, they all died in the blast'. Exodus 9:6: And all the cattle of the Egyptians died

The Journey
The route chosen by Moses went through the land of Midian (close to where Moses had spent the last 40 years of self-exile). The most popular route to Canaan was the northern route along the Mediterranean. But that route would take them through Egyptian controlled territory. It had a number of Egyptian military fortresses which would have been too risky and likely to have resulted in conflicts with the Egyptian army units that had been detailed to these outposts.

During their 40 year journey to the promised land, the ten commandments were revealed to Moses by God on Mount Sinai. He also received the foundations of the legal and moral systems of the Jewish religion. It contained the written words which established the principles and beliefs of Judaism. And as commanded by God, the Ark of the Covenant was built to contain the ten commandments. Unfortunately, evidence today seems to suggest that Moses died in the Sinai, almost, but not quite making it to the promised land.


The Promised Land
Having made their way across the Sinai and back to Canaan the Israelites proceeded to conquer and settle in the cities and land of Canaan. Here they became farmers and craftsmen and tried to become successful and prosper in a peaceful existence. But they were attacked by the Philistines, one of the Aegean 'sea people'. The Philistines carried off the Ark of the Covenant that held the ten commandments received by Moses. These attacks generated the need to have a ruler that would unite all the tribes. Saul, the first king of the kingdom of Israel, fought to recover the Ark but he died in a crushing defeat at the hands of the superior Philistine forces.

Eventually, David succeeded him. And after the David and Goliath (of the Philistines) famous incident David emerged victorious from battle and became King of a unified Israel (King David united the many tribes into the nation of Israel). He brought the restored Ark to a Canaanite city called Urusalim which he conquered and made his capital and renamed it Jerusalem. David succeeded in establishing his kingdom as a major power in the region. He finally defeated the Philistines as well as other enemies and forged alliances with neighbouring kingdoms.

In his old age he named Solomon as his heir. Solomon reign further strengthened the kingdom. He ensured peace for his kingdom through more treaties as well as reinforcing existing treaties with neighbouring kings and through the clever use of politically motivated marriages. He transformed the economy of Israel and established maritime trade. He is best known as a builder of palaces, fortresses and the his crowning achievement was the building of the Temple of Jerusalem.

But is there any evidence to support the story of the Exodus? There has been difficulties for Archaeologists digging in this area, both because of the vast expanse and isolation of the Sinai region and not least because of the ongoing Arab-Israel conflict. However we would expect that the mass movement of 600,000 Hebrews wandering the desert for 40 years would leave traces behind for us to find. Archaeologists regularly find charred bones and pottery around the world even after thousands of years. And even in this present era, the Bedouins, a nomadic Arab people who move about according to the seasons in this region leave an abundance of traces that can easily be recognised today.

Some evidence of the presence of Israelites in the western Sinai has been found at Mt Serabit el-Khadim. These turquoise-rich mountains were mined by the Egyptians from the 20th century BC to the 12th century BC. Rock-carved inscriptions of Semitic origin have been found in the caves here dating to this period when the Israelites were enslaved in Egypt. Also Egyptian inscriptions refer to 'Asiatics' as having taken part in the mining expeditions. This term 'Asiatics' is thought to mean the Israelites.

We also see certain details described in the bible about life in the delta region of Egypt. One example is the particular method of house and city building in that region. It was different in Israel at that time. This would suggest that the writer of the bible had first hand information of construction in this region. Certainly a later scribe making this story up, as has been suggested about the Israelites in Egypt, would not have got these details correct.

The bible actually names two of these cities that were built at that time. Exodus 1:11: Therefore they did set over them taskmasters to afflict them with their burdens. And they built for Pharaoh treasure cities, Pithom and Raamses.

These cities do not exist today. So Archaeologists set about looking for them. We know that there was a Pharaoh called Ramses II in biblical time (1290-1224 BC) and Egyptian records say he built his capital city in the delta. He called it the House of Ramses. Archaeologists began searching for the remains of this great city and discovered in the north east of the delta a city called Tanis. This seemed to be what they were looking for. Could this be the city built by the Hebrews?

The statutes and inscriptions were of Ramses II. There was just one problem. The date was out by about 100 years. Fragments of pottery showed that the city was founded around 1100 BC. By then the Hebrews had left Egypt and had settled in the promised land. This mystified archaeologists. The solution to the problem was revealed in a geological survey of the Nile delta. This revealed a branch of the Nile dried up in the 12th century BC. Perhaps the capital Ramses was originally on the Nile, but when the river dried up it lost its vital harbour so the capital was moved to Tanis where there was a harbour. But where was the site of the original city? It was discovered 50 kms away from Tanis. The area has been excavated and they have unearthed the foundations of a vast city, of temples, palaces. This was the city of the house of Ramses Which is where the Israelites built the store city of Ramses. It looks like the bible was right about this detail.

If the bible and the stories about Moses and the Exodus had been written around 400-500BC, as some people claim, then they would have referred to the Egyptian capital as Tanis and not Ramses, since the capital city Ramses was vacated and didn't exist after 1000BC - surely the city of Ramses would have long been forgotten at that time. However if it was written by the Hebrews who had actually built the city of Ramses at the original site around about the time of construction then the bible can only make since this way.

For years Archaeologists have searched for evidence behind the story of Moses. From all available evidence so far the archaeological record does match the biblical accounts quiet well.